Halloween: A Search For The Sacred


Halloween: A Search For The Sacred
Brian Zahnd

It’s Halloween. The season of ghosts and goblins, haunted houses and horror movies. The modern observance of Halloween seems, for the most part, to be an innocent celebration of the strange joy of being scared. There’s no doubt that a significant number of us do enjoy being scared as a form of entertainment. How else do you explain that Stephen King has sold half a billion books?! But why? Why do we like to be scared? I think it has to do with a search for what is most missing in the modern world: the sacred. We like being scared because we are so very secular.

When modernity came of age it banished the sense of the sacred. Empiricism, materialism, positivism had won the day. Science was now the high priest that would answer all questions and religion was merely the superstition of the hopelessly naïve. We found ourselves in a world without God or gods, a world beyond good and evil (as Nietzsche said), a world without angels and demons. Religion was but hucksterism and nothing was truly sacred anymore. Bob Dylan captured it well when he said,

Disillusioned words like bullets bark
As human gods aim for their mark
Make everything from toy guns that spark
To flesh-colored Christs that glow in the dark
It’s easy to see without looking too far
That not much is really sacred

But it turns out that we miss the sacred. Deeply. There is an ache in the human soul for the sacred, the holy, the hallowed. Sometimes the closest the secular person can get to touching the sacred is to be scared. Again Dylan:

Some of us turn off the lights
And we live in the moonlight shooting by
Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark
To be where the angels fly

To be scared is the poor man’s substitute for the sacred.
Look at the words; it’s just the transposition of two letters.


When we can no longer find the sacred we settle for being scared. We can live with the fear that something is out there in the dark — even if it’s a vampire or a werewolf. What we cannot live with is the horrifying idea that there is nothing out there. That we are alone in a cold material world with not so much as a single angel. In such a world even a devil would be welcome company. Halloween affords secular modernity the opportunity to remember a time when the world was inhabited by more than meets the eye. It’s a search for the sacred. So I have a sympathy for Halloween…or All Hallows’ Eve.

But I’m a Christian, and a sacramental Christian at that. I can do better than the momentary thrill of an M. Night Shyamalan movie. I embrace a sacred ontology. I confess the sacred mysteries of the Christian faith. I believe in the Incarnation and Resurrection. My religion is not a modern Gnosticism practiced as a private spirituality, but the material faith of sacramental Christianity. I embrace a faith that cannot be practiced without water and bread and wine. Baptism and Communion are not mere symbolic ideas, but incursions into the sacred. Every time I share in the Eucharist I encounter sacred mystery.

The Incarnation reminds me that I live in a sacred world. A world where the Word can become flesh. A world where grain and grape, bread and wine, can communicate the body and blood of Jesus. If the Word can become flesh, if bread and wine can become sacramental, then all of creation takes on a sacred aura. As Wendell Berry says, “There are no non-sacred places. There are only sacred and desecrated places.”

We live in a sacred world. A world capable of communicating the divine. But we also live in a secular age and we have largely lost sacred knowledge. (This is related to our irresponsible treatment of the planet, but that is another subject.) In the early 21st century we are at a crossroads. Secular utopianism is defunct. It died in 1945 at Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Now we will either rediscover the sacred or sink into nihilistic despair.

Some cope with the soul-crushing boredom of the secular age by scaring themselves now and then. That’s mostly what Halloween is about — getting a little high on some innocent fear. Being scared is a kind of cousin to encountering the sacred. The scary and the sacred are related. It’s why you can easily make a scary movie in a gothic cathedral, but not a Precious Moments chapel.

(Let me just say we need more gothic and less kitsch in our Christianity. Give me a gargoyle or two but save me from insipid sentimentality!)

So how do we move beyond the trite sentimentality of kitsch Christianity or the bland utility of pragmatic Christianity? How do we recover the awe and wonder of sacred mystery? I’m convinced it involves a thoughtful reintroduction of ancient forms of Christian worship. Liturgy, Creed, Eucharist, and the hallowing of time through an observance of the church calendar. These ancient forms are like a gothic cathedral — they are full of holy mystery and communicate a sense of the sacred, which is what a secular society sadly yearns for on Halloween.


(The picture is of “the bored gargoyle” on Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.)